Grief, Depression and the Pressure to Survive
The pressure to survive makes survival feel like disease.
My Bubie died two weeks ago.
In Jewish tradition, after you the burial of a dead loved one, you open your home to guests for seven days, asking those who knew the deceased to take part in their grieving, a process known as “Sitting Shiva” (“Shiva” is the Hebrew word for “Seven”, ergo: Seven Days).
Death is difficult.
For one thing, grief is depression in sheep’s clothing.
Funerals and memorials are Mortality’s opportunity to grandstand, complete with a spotlight on your already-questionably-balanced brain’s tendency towards existential helplessness. No, there is no overarching Point other than the one you continuously invent for yourself and good luck inventing anything when you’ve just lost a meaningful part of your life.
So, ok: Grief sucks.
But, on top of that, let’s chat about the pressure to honour the dead by contributing greatly to a societal future.
All I can think, since my Bubie died, all I can think is: Oh fuck, Bubie died and I didn’t even make her proud, I didn’t give her any sign of gratitude “thanks for the livelihood, don’t worry I was worth it”, I let her down and what now.
I am lost. Doubting my purpose.
Her death is now my problem. Me Me Me Millenial Me has failed.
I can’t breathe lately. I am getting angry easily. I hate everything I see, hear, eat, feel. I am only comfortable at home, in bed. Things, all real things, are overwhelming, incomprehensible and usually offensive. If I have yelled at you in the past week, fuck. If I have ignored you in the past week, oof.
I don’t know what day it is, I don’t know where I am.
I keep thinking of two weeks ago, kneeling in Bubie’s hospital room, holding her hand, dad waves my aunt over because he feels Bubie’s neck which is losing temperature rapidly and so they hold each of her hands while mom gets the nurse who says “it looks like she is taking her last breaths” and we hold on to her and hold on to her and hold on to her—replaying the same scene in my head, six years ago with Zeidy, hold onto him and hold onto him, he sits up, gasps—she sits up, gasps and you can see: Everything she ever lived shown to her in three quick deep gasps. She takes three more breaths and departs.
The doctor checks but whatever.
What do we do? “Well, we unhook her and you can stay here as long as you want but the funeral home will pick her up. You have four hours. I am sorry.”
Doctor leaves and dad says, “You have some big shoes to fill.” He says it again. He says it again and a few more times that day.
Bubie wore sneakers. White Reeboks.
I have imagined myself stepping into them every day.
What were her feet like?
She had bunions.
We both have bunions, exacerbated bony growths on the side of our big toes.
Other than that, I don’t know how to fill these shoes.
Bubie was a mystery to me my whole life
For some reason, I have been sad forever. I usually call that reason “depression” and often feel ok when I remember how frequently I survived self harm but right now it feels like an excruciating challenge to draw the line between a chronic mental illness and just an old habit. I feel helpless all the time.
Bubie and Zeidy used to criticize me for being too sensitive and overemotional.
They were not emotional people.
Both of them were Holocaust survivors, both of them lived nightmarish childhoods. They have overcome Hell.
Still, as my grandparents, they were busy, laughing people who always had a solution for everything and never allowed themselves to fixate on could-be-torturous things.
Together they laughed at life, kept extremely busy with travel and philanthropy.
After Zeidy died, Bubie recuperated by attending more Jewish services, lectures, reading more.
I remember, following the Shiva for Zeidy, I went to visit Bubie and had no idea how to talk to her. After a couple minutes she told me to go home.
So, what shoes am I supposed to fill? What were they previously full of?
I put on my Bubie’s shoes and my feet shrink, her shoes only feel bigger. I am unaccomplished.
I’m not like Bubie.
Dad’s expectations of me are daunting.
I don’t like these shoes. They don’t suit me.
I remember when Bubie gave up.
It was last year.
I remember it feeling instantaneous.
Mom says Bubie is sick and she’s been getting tested.
The doctor has to come to her house.
She won’t go to the hospital.
She won’t even go to the doctor’s office.
We can’t get Bubie to go anywhere.
Bubie won’t get out of bed.
For the past two weeks I don’t want to get out of bed.
I feel stuck. Glued to the mattress.
Normally I wake up at 4:30. I work, I go to the gym and I walk my dog as the sun rises.
Actually, Bubie used to wake up at 4:30. She used to work out, eat breakfast and go to services.
Ok, wait. Her shoes start to fit more comfortably.
I spent the shiva awkwardly avoiding the question, “What do you do?”
“Tell them you’re an artist,” mom says.
I do that once and the old man then asks me, “Is that why you get to wear sunglasses.”
I could say, “Actually I am blind,” but instead I say “yeah” and I excuse myself to go get more water.
My out of every conversation is “Excuse me, I just need to find some more water.”
Her shoes double in size as I sit and drink water.
I wonder about the past few months where I have applied to ofter job and received barely any response.
I am really just a writer. No commercial or capital value. No real proof that I do anything at all.
I can’t hope to illuminate the future or help in any ways.
In fact, all I hear from all the artists that I know is how little of a future is left to the world.
As artists, we express momentous responses to the present and the present would readily suggest that there is very little future left to us.
I don’t want to hope back into bed now and start grieving a world that isn’t over yet.
I don’t think you should do that either.
Grief feels like punishment.
I keep punishing myself which I don’t think is filling Bubie’s shoes in any way and I don’t think it’s any form of art.
So, here’s what I know how to do and let me quickly do it.
The sun helped me today. Let me describe how:
Have you seen what the sun offers?
This Morning’s Grievance, now swallowed by Gift.
A bright coat of presence lifts the city.
Awakened warm air
Delivering a new begging
filling wintery wish.
Of the inconclusive past
Mangled in dusted presence
Like noticeable garbage.
Hand-holding with the heat,
Just for today,
I reason with the urge to sit in the grass.
You said the world would be over.
Sensations argue with sensations.
Photographic future fantasies
Feel like forced conclusion when
The world is survivor-abundant.
Land between the shadows
Unending your ending.
What’s coming, has already come
The surprise involves
Finding the warmth of our weakness.